My social feed is full of deeply flawed arguments about the science of COVID-19. It’s in the mainstream media too, but it bothers me more when I see it coming from my libertarian friends and organizations.
I used to be likewise “triggered” by libertarian and conservative writing about global warming. Leftists would probably call me a “climate change denier”. In reality, I have always been modest enough to know that I’m not qualified to debate climate science. I hope that comes through in my very first writing on the topic in 2007.
Likewise, I am humble enough to know that I’m not a doctor, an epidemiologist, a statistician, or a scientist. (Furthermore, being a professional scientist is not an automatic qualification to be an expert on fields outside one’s specialty.)
It’s is not a sin to abstain from taking a position on matters one does not fully understand. We are not obligated to express an opinion on the vast majority of issues. It’s acceptable and appropriate to admit ignorance on questions on which we cannot form an educated opinion and focus on topics that are more relevant to our lives. It is wrong, however, to attempt to inform others without having an educated opinion first. In the words of Frédéric Bastiat,
“The worst thing that can happen to a good cause is, not to be skillfully attacked, but to be ineptly defended.”
Do you need to be a climate scientist to comment on climate change or a doctor to comment on facemasks? That depends on the context of your argument.
There are some matters on which all adults are morally obligated to have an informed opinion. If you see a man snatch a purse on the street, you don’t need to be a philosopher specializing in ethics to shout “thief, stop!” Social existence requires consensus among the majority on some basic ground rules – be polite, wait your turn, presume goodwill, return your shopping cart, respect personal boundaries, etc. If someone proposes violating one of these rules, it’s enough to point it out as prima facie wrong.
Back to global warming: I’ve mentioned my objection to non-scientists pretending to have an informed opinion with ridiculous arguments such as
“but water vapor creates more warming than CO2!” But that works both ways. In “An Inconvenient Truth,” Al Gore claims that the sea level will rise 20 feet “in the near future.” The International Panel on Climate Change predicts a rise of 0.59 to 2.0 feet over the next 100 years. I’m not qualified to judge either number, but neither is Al Gore, and I can call him a liar when he cites numbers that have no basis in the scientific consensus.
More importantly, while I’m not qualified to debate the science of climate change, I am qualified to share opinions on political and economic matters. It’s not because I have degrees on the subjects, but rather because I got degrees in both subjects because of deep interest and years of research on political theory and economic principles. I don’t need to debate the science of climate to point out the benefits of industrial society, the morality of exploiting nature to further human flourishing, the reduction in suffering from natural disasters made possible by the economic development that the environmentalists now want to curtail. I can also show how developed nations are more capable of adapting to a constantly changing climate and environmentally conscious than primitive and developing societies.
There is a lot more than I can say on the matter. Still, I hope you can see that I focus on topics I (1) build arguments from basic principles that most people can agree on (2) point out when others make claims not consistent with scientific consensus and (3) focus on areas of personal interest that I’ve personally educated myself on.
With that context in mind, let’s return to the topic of COVID-19. It’s absurd that the question of hydroxychloroquine’s efficacy has become a political issue. We need evidence-based medical research precisely because anecdotal evidence can be so misleading. I have no time, interest, or ability to stay on top of the latest medical research. If I get sick, I will go to a medical professional who practices evidence-based medicine and trust them to make sound decisions.
What I am qualified to write about (and have at length) is the government’s destructive economic response to the pandemic, the importance of local decision-making in medicine, the harmful consequences of central planning in responding to the epidemic, and the moral right of people to make decisions about their health.
I’ve also covered the benefits of universal mask-wearing — according to the scientific consensus and empirical evidence. I’ve advocated for private property rights – the right of businesses to kick out people who refuse to wear masks, and their right to decide how much risk and liability they are willing to tolerate.
Being pro-liberty does not require being anti-science, even when politics have corrupted science. Our adversary is usually the advancement of political goals through under a scientific guise. You should untangle the evidence from the politics and address flawed political ideas and goals rather than discredit your side by demonstrating your ignorance when you venture into topics you don’t fully understand.